How We Decided to Add on to Our House & My Top 5 Tips for Managing A Major Home Project

top5tipsmanaginghomeprojectAs I typed this, a couple of really nice guys were hammering away right outside my back door, where a cute little enclosed back porch used to be.  We had some great family dinners out there.

Back porch

Right off the back porch was a nice little yard,Caroline Backyard

where so many games of catch and tag and whiffle ball have been played, that I lost count.IMG_7943 IMG_7957 IMG_7959 IMG_7962 IMG_7975

It’s where my kids have celebrated birthdays and caught lightning bugs and picked up several thousand walnuts from the tree we have.

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So why did my husband and I agree to trade all that in for a huge construction project, piles of dirt and debris, and months of noise and disruption? We may have an illness… this is the third house we’ve owned, and the third one onto which we’ve built an addition.

The surprise, perhaps, is that we honestly don’t regret any of them.

IMG_7065Our current house is situated on an old street in a great neighborhood with a great school district.  We wrote offers on four houses in the district before we got this one.  It’s a great house overall, and for the most part we live very well in it. But. Last winter was very snowy and very, very cold and we really tired of scraping our cars off.  We have no garage.  One of the joys of buying an old house. (This was taken from our front porch.)


My finished basement houses our family room.  Since I left TV news and started my own business, our finished basement also houses my projects, furniture pieces I’m working on. (Dad, too.)IMG_6535 Other people’s stuff. My stuff. Lots of stuff. Did I mention the stuff? I do my best to keep them moving and cull the stuff from time to time but it is the nature of the beast when you do what I do.

The bottom line is this.  Our main level just cannot accommodate a nice, big TV room where our whole family, plus friends or grandparents, can hang out and enjoy each other.  Our front door opens right into this:  IMG_1430

It has a lovely fireplace and built-in shelves where we love to sit and read, where the kids play, where my in-laws have happy hour when they come to visit.  It’s a great little gathering room.   I decided early on that we would not put a TV in there at all.  We listen to the radio, we read, we nap.  But we don’t watch TV in there.  And that’s how we like it.

So when last winter hit it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.  We started asking around for contractors.  Turned out a good friend whom I’ve known forever is a contractor, and that he was just the guy for the job.  But then we hemmed and hawed about spending the money.  It’s a lot of money. So how did we decide to add on?

Here were all the PROs about doing this project:

Would give us much needed storage space for our cars and other outdoor equipment.

Would make our lives easier (having an attached garage is of course not a necessity.  It is a luxury.)

Would give us the opportunity to put a family room on top of the garage, freeing up the basement for my work.

Even with the significant investment, we would not have a house that was too expensive for reasonable resale value.  We didn’t want to price ourselves out of the market.  We talked with the agent we used to buy the house, and she reinforced this for us.

Here are the CONs.

Cost. It is a big investment.  There’s just no getting around that. But there are ways to mitigate.  I’ll expand on that…

We’d have to lose a great old tree in order to get the driveway back to the new garage. (I will just tell you, before you send me hate mail, that I hated losing that tree. We love our trees. If there was any other way to do this, we wouldn’t have taken that tree down. Sniff.)

IMG_3711Noise and disturbance to us and our neighbors.  We try to be as considerate as possible, but construction is loud and messy and our property sits in close proximity to three others. We of course took all that into consideration.IMG_4319

Our back yard would shrink.  We thought long and hard about doing this addition, and what size it should be.

Time and energy. Think you’re just going to hire some people, write checks, and be done with it?  Not so much.  I’ll go into this more in a minute.

In the end, the PROs outweighed the CONs.  We have moved several times as a family and have no desire to do it again any time soon.  So that meant that if this project was really something that was important to us, we should do it.

Now, there may be something you noticed that was missing from our list.  Did you catch it?

I did not list resale value under the PROs.  It was not a mistake.

IMG_3908Could an attached two-car garage in a desirable school district be valuable for resale?  Possibly.  Can anyone, anywhere accurately predict the real estate market, or what a specific buyer would be willing to pay for our house at some point in the future?


The answer, no matter what anyone wants you to believe is NO. THEY CAN’T.

I say this to underline the fact that as unbelievable as it may be to some, we forced ourselves not to factor possible resale value into our decision, as much as possible.  We are choosing carefully how we spend our money on this project, keeping costs in check while still maintaining quality, so that we do what’s best for us and our family, without compromising our financial security.  In short, we are building this addition for US.

IMG_4156With all that said, here are my own personal insights on keeping costs down and keeping sanity in check while adding onto a house:



 1. Get opinions, and then get more.

One contractor may have a good idea for how to accomplish what you want.  But the fourth contractor you talk to may have the BEST idea.  Ask around.  Ask friends who have built houses or added on, what they like best about their home and what they would have done differently.

2. Be honest about your finances.IMG_4503

DO NOT depend on some future sale of your house for your financial security.  If you are a professional house flipper, then that’s your prerogative.  Otherwise, be honest with yourself and your significant other. How are you going to finance the project? How will it affect your day to day budget? What about future investments that you may be taking money away from – college, retirement, vacations? We sought out a financial advisor before we ever turned our first shovel of dirt.

IMG_4514(TIP: When you’re planning your project, watch out for what is and what is not included in the cost.  Your contractor’s proposal may be right in line with your budget.  BUT… I bet you it doesn’t include furnishing and decorating your new space.  If your yard will be disturbed, do you know how much it will cost to landscape and replant your property? What about the amount of money you’ll be paying each month to heat/cool/clean/maintain the rooms?)

3. Be honest about your time.IMG_4515

You will have to spend time meeting with your contractor, and sometimes their subcontractors.  You will be asked to make choices about what you want, which will require research on your part. Prepare to get lost in the rabbit holes of Pinterest, Houzz, and Hometalk, as well as the aisles of several home improvement stores searching for information and inspiration. You’ll want to make sure the space you end up with is what you really want.  That doesn’t just happen.  If you don’t know what you want, you’re likely to get it.  

IMG_4578Take a brutally honest look at your lifestyle and your schedule. Do you have time – or are you willing to make time – to be on top of this project and do it well?

IMG_45284. Expect the Unexpected.

Watch home shows on TV for about 2 minutes and you’ll soon realize that every time there’s something unexpected that turns up in a home buying/renovating/addition project, the people look shocked.  Puh-leeeeese.  I’ll save you the drama.  IMG_4162Here’s the deal – once you turn a shovel, open a wall, or pull off a piece of roof, just EXPECT that something crazy/wrong/old/leaky/asbestos-ridden will be in there.  It just will.  If by some miracle it’s not, and you never have the knock at your door from a contractor with that look on his face, then get down on your knees, thank your lucky stars, and go buy a lottery ticket because your house is a freak of nature.

And do not tell me about it. :-)

The rest of you, have a bottle of wine in your pantry and some wiggle room in your budget, because IT WILL HAPPEN. Now you can just rest easy and wait for it, and it will roll off your back like water off a duck.  Chances are, it’s really not the end of the world.IMG_4596


With each of our projects, I’ve learned something.  Something about how space can be used, when walls are necessary vs. when they’re not, and the kinds of things that can really make a space sing.  Do not be afraid to question what your contractor is doing, why he is putting something where he’s putting it, or if it might be better off put somewhere else.  I have memories of these kinds of things from each home.  In the first one, our contractor was working on our master closet and had HVAC ducts and plumbing running up and down one end of the closet.  He was going to just wall them off, effectively decreasing the square footage in there.  I asked him if I could have the space in between them back – about 2 feet wide by a foot deep or so.  He asked me why I’d want that – we ended up putting shelves in that space from almost floor to ceiling and it housed all kind of shoes, etc.  I’m awfully glad I asked.  He had not thought of it because although he was an awesome contractor, he probably does not care where his shoes are stored in his closet.

And I am also a “storage space” hoarder.  (Case in point below: that time when Dad and I ripped out a friend’s only bathroom and gave it a much needed overhaul, complete with – you guessed it – built in shelves snuggled in around water pipes.)  You can read that here.  :-)


In planning this addition, the original plan was to build stairs in the new garage, up into the existing house.  But we soon realized that the stairs were going to eat into our space in there, which we really didn’t want, and couldn’t spare. Instead, I asked if it would be possible to cut a doorway from the garage (which is being built at basement level), through our existing foundation, into our existing basement, and use the stairs we already have, thus eliminating the need to build a new stairwell.  It is going to cost a minimal amount more, but it will be so much better, in my opinion! I’ll be turning my small craft room into the mudroom, which is fine because I’m gaining the whole rest of the basement as workspace.

I hope this post has been helpful.  I’d love to hear about how other families think through these things, too.



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